Bitch Goddess Playwright Gets Real

Ilse Bing, Self Portrait-in-Mirrors, 1931. Photo: Museum of Modern Art.

I launched my annual #1playaday reading binge on May 1. On day seven I read Young Jean Lee’s Lear. What’s striking in the first pages of the play is the way Lee situates her play within the context of Shakespeare’s text, deftly compressing the action of the original and framing the audience’s view of Lee’s play moving forward. Her stage directions are evocative and precise. She describes the proscenium, the sound and the action as the curtain rises. She describes the walls of the throne room, the throne, the chairs, the carpets, the back wall, the costumes and the continuing action set to music.

Lee’s authority is unquestionable. 

I want to take a moment and let this sentence sit. I want to repeat it.

Lee’s authority is unquestionable.

Story continues below.

It’s easy to take this kind of authority for granted. On the page, it seems such a given. Yet, it’s no secret that once a playwright’s gender, race, ethnicity and/or class become associated with the words, their authority begins to radically shift. This erosion, having to do with unconscious bias, is subtle and disorienting, sometimes leaving artists to navigate play development and production through a fun house mirror reflection — a space that is slightly suspect, but seldom explicitly so. Women in particular can find themselves in a double bind: If you act in a way that reflects gender norms, then you’re perceived as incompetent; if you go against stereotype, you’re considered unfeminine and difficult to work with.

Here’s Joanna Russ in How to Suppress Women’s Writing:

She didn’t write it. But if it’s clear she did the deed… She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have. (It’s political, sexual, masculine, feminist.) She wrote it but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family. Other women.) She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. (“Jane Eyre. Poor dear, that’s all she ever…”) She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist and it isn’t really art. (It’s a thriller, a romance, a children’s book. It’s sci fi!) She wrote it, but she had help. (Robert Browning. Branwell Bronte. Her own “masculine side.”) She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. (Woolf. With Leonard’s help…) She wrote it BUT…

This isn’t the kind of phenomenon you can count, yet it can be measured in response rates and associations to words and images. We respond favorably to words and images we have established associations with and unfavorably when we encounter the opposite. Stories are patterns. Our associations and expectations with respect to content and form are based on stories we’ve seen before.

This was helpful to hunters, who I suspect exercised a more prosaic form of pattern recognition, more akin to fairy tales. Structure and content became formalized in the Aristotelian model that’s now built into the DNA of western European culture. We may have a preference for linearity, for stories with a clear beginning, middle and end. We might find a satisfying predictability in them. That predictability comes through repetition and constant association (witness a child learning to tell joke). It can become a dead end, leading to a stultification of form that harms the field. It also hides enormous rifts in experience.

Our culture has built a mythology around the author of our stories. We accept and celebrate the authority and genius of the male writer. Our associations about content, form and structure all derive from those myths. This often means adapting or adopting the dominant style or form. Lauren Gunderson’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear comes to mind as an example of a play that comically embraces and subverts the narrative norm, and ultimately claims ground for a female-centered dramaturgy. Her work is successfully building new narrative associations, giving audiences a new lens through which to view women’s writing. To quote Gertrude Stein:

How can you tell a boy how can you tell a girl.

What about writers whose style or process doesn’t conform, or veers off into territory for which we have no associations? What if, in spite of inventiveness or quality of work, producers or audiences or critics don’t recognize the playwright’s intention because of unconscious bias? What if the playwright’s authority isn’t recognized or, for some reason, their play is triggering?

Story continues below.

I’m curious about the critical response to Lydia Diamond’s Smart People outlined in Anchuli Felicia King’s recent article on Howlround. Much of the criticism falls in the realm of competence, suggesting that Diamond hasn’t quite mastered the form, that her characters are stock and stereotypical, mouthpieces for her dramaturgy. New York Times critic Charles Isherwood calls out her reference to the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” as offering the audience a fig leaf.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The more you deviate from the norm, the more triggering you are.[/pullquote]Could Diamond be up to more here than apologizing for her dramaturgy? What if her reference is a double entendre — a reference to Guare’s play and the game it spawned, which consequently erases the main character of the play and substitutes a white man? Diamond is criticized for her plot contrivances. Might Guare’s play seem as similarly contrived if it weren’t based on the experience of his “friends”? Does it matter? Where exactly does Guare’s authority come from? What if Diamond were challenging it? What would her reasons be? Where’s the impulse to dig deeper into Diamond’s story? It shouldn’t be surprising that her play might not have gotten a fair reading, as Jesse Green of New York magazine seems to suggest.

I produced my own work within my own company for the first seven years of my career. Our mission was to explore race, class and gender through the work we produced or devised. This was the culture I steeped in as I wrote and developed my work. The company gave me a space where I could write whatever I chose, develop my plays holistically through a writing and devising process, and where my voice as a writer could find the fullest strength of expression.

Story continues below.

As I’ve moved into the more mainstream apparatus of play development, I’ve encountered a constant gendering of my work. I’m not naive enough to believe that it never happened before — I have reviews that plainly illustrate how my gender can affect a critic’s view of my work. I’m surprised at how often and in what ways my authority as a writer is called into question. A fellow artist recently shared her frustration: “There’s always someone who challenges the power in the room [or who defaults to] emotional over-identification,” she said, issues that she attributes to the fact that either “I’m a girl or because I’m not a traditional girl.” Few people act this way on purpose; our presence as female or writers of color trigger associations that are projected onto our work. As my friend confirms, “Women in general trigger people. The more you deviate from the norm, the more triggering you are.”

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Women in general trigger people.[/pullquote]While those experiences can be paralyzing at times, it’s important to identify and celebrate where and how we are succeeding. Gender parity (Yes, to The List! Yes, to Counting Actors!) is generating action by raising consciousness and visibly changing the makeup of our seasons. The trend toward all female or female-focused seasons* creates a necessary space for new voices to emerge, while increasing our exposure to the variety of form and content coming from writers who are considered to fall outside the traditional norm. (This is a perception, a construct, you realize.) Those associations will make it possible to discover new modes of expression and forms. We haven’t seen it yet because we’re still inside the funhouse. As I launch my column, Shakespeare’s Sister, for The Clyde Fitch Report, I’m excited to find a supportive space to explore topics that can help move the conversation forward.

*Artemisia Theatre, Fresh Ink Theatre, Halcyon Theatre, Magic Theater, Theatre Conspiracy, Playwrights Realm. Please list those I’ve missed in the comments section.